After an absence of 19 years, there's a new and reduced 'Les Miserables' on Broadway, and though the story still has the power of Victor Hugo's original novel, its new size is sort of like watching 'Lawrence of Arabia' on your iPod. The characters are the same, the scenery's the same, and the dialogue's the same, but the grandeur is missing.
The original production of 'Les Mis' opened in 1987 in the cavernous 1800-seat Broadway Theatre with a cast of 84. Compare this to the 1100-seat Broadhurst where the show now resides, and its cast of 74. The narrower stage can barely contain the enormous barricades, and the actors, when all on stage, are cramped. Curiously though, this non-fat version of "Les Mis" now has an intimacy that was lacking in the original.
For those of you who missed 'Les Mis' the first time around, this is a complicated story of redemption, social revolution, and love. Jean Valjean, the unifying character in this sprawling story, is a thief, a man who stole a piece of bread and was sentenced to 19 years in jail for the crime.
When released, Javert, the self-righteous policeman who first arrested him, vows to dog him till the end of his days believing that once a thief, always a thief. As if to prove him right, Valjean steals again, from a bishop who explains to Javert that the silver was a gift. Stunned by this kindness, Valjean vows to spend the rest of his life doing good.
One of his good deeds is to rescue the dying Fantine, a woman in his factory who was wrongly fired, and then adopt her daughter Cosette. The stories come together when Marius, a revolutionary in the 1832 student revolt, sees Cosette and falls in love with her.
Interestingly, this uprising is a topic of discussion in 'Voyage' and 'Shipwreck,' (Parts 1 and 2 of 'Coast of Utopia'), mentioned as an example of the futility of social revolution. These idealistic students, naively believing they can change their world, lose it all in their bloody battle on the barricades. Only Marius survives, saved by Valjean to be united with Cosette.
The staging of this battle scene is magnificent, performed in slow motion with actors falling to the ground, or hanging from pieces of junk that make up the barricades. It is physically dangerous, brilliantly executed, and why, though this is the fourth time I've seen 'Les Mis,' I'm still thrilled by it. Even in its smaller incarnation.
The versatile Alexander Gemignani is this revival's Valjean, and though he doesn't have the perfect voice of Colm Wilkinson who originated the role, he more than makes up for it in his very personal portrayal of the man.
Other outstanding performances include those of Aaron Lazar as Enjolras, the student leader of the revolt, Jenny Galloway as Madame Thenardier, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Eponine, and Brian D'Addario as Gavroche, a little bit of a thing who's a real charmer.
Norm Lewis is a heartbreaking Javert, tough, conflicted and ultimately despairing as he takes his own life. In contrast to this tragic figure is Thenardier, the innkeeper devoid of decency and morals, played broadly by the Tony-winning Gary Beach, recently seen in 'The Producers.'
It was Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine, however, who had me flabbergasted. What in the world were directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird thinking when they cast this former 'Rent' and 'Rocky Horror Show' star in the role of the consumptive and frail woman?
I appreciate their commitment to a multi-cultural cast -- and this one is a veritable United Nations -- but Rubin-Vega was an egregious error which fortunately is being corrected in March with Lea Salonga as her replacement. This waif from 'Miss Saigon' should do a wonderful job as Fantine.
If you've never seen 'Les Mis,' then this production is a must-see. And if you have seen it, you'll appreciate this go-round it for its intimacy, but it will feel a bit like "Les Mis" lite.
What the critics had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says ï¿½Freshly reorchestrated and (for the most part) appealingly sung, this undercast ï¿½Misï¿½rables,ï¿½ a slightly scaled-down version of the well-groomed behemoth that arrived in New York nearly two decades ago, appears to be functioning in a state of mild sedation. It isnï¿½t sloppy or blurry. But its pulse rate stays well below normal, and so most likely will yours."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST says "So is "Les Miz" as good as before? Not quite - it doesn't wear as well as Sondheim or Lloyd Webber. But its two principal performers effortlessly evoke the glories of its past."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of Star-Ledger says "Looking over the slate of current Broadway attractions, there isn't any other musical around today that packs the sentimental wallop of "Les Miserables." Anyone wanting a good cry should grab extra hankies and go."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "Herbert Kretzmer's plodding, pretentious lyrics embellish the obvious with tortured rhymes and the occasional witless joke. And Schonberg's pop-operatic score remains flagrantly derivative, even by today's lax standards. None of this should, or will, deter anyone who savored Les Miserables during its first run (1987-2003). And there are fine performances in this revival. At 27, leading man Alexander Gemignani seems young to play Valjean, but he's a formidable physical and vocal presence. Daphne Rubin-Vega's dusky voice is well suited to the wounded, doomed Fantine. And Gary Beach lends welcome comic relief as the dastardly Thenardier. The scenes in which he appears are the most buoyant. But if a few breaths of levity can't sustain you through nearly three hours (with intermission) of melodrame, don't say I didn't warn you."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "The show - trimmed a bit, to less than three hours - is "Masterpiece Musical" at its most pretentious. It's upright and earnest, bombastic and banal, with its pseudo-religiosity, politics without context and generic score as charmless as it is vocally treacherous. It is opera for people who don't like opera, a revolutionary novel transformed into a revolving platform that turns soberly and doggedly in the dark."
JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS: "It is a show of its time - 1987 - that survives because a lot of people really like it. If you'd like to see it again, it's waiting for you on Broadway. And if you've never seen it before, the revival is serviceable, though drained of pretty much all of its emotional content - except for what you may bring to it, from your own personal memory bank."
ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "Using a turntable set, they tell the story of the reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean and his pursuit over the decades by the bulldog policeman Javert swiftly, clearly and compellingly, blending the intimate and the epic. It's bound together by the indelible, recurring themes of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg -- tender, tear-inducing ballads and big, loud numbers to stir the blood. Who hasn't been touched by poor Fantine singing "I Dreamed a Dream" or roused by the rebellious students' call to arms, "Do You Hear the People Sing?," even if we haven't a clue what they're rebelling against. Manipulative? Sure. But that's not a sin in the theater when it's done so well."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS says "What stands out most forcefully in this revival is its clarity of story and song. The show, which only ended its original Broadway run in 2003, has returned with a sterling cast and new orchestrations (by Christopher Jahnke) that allow the lyrics of the sung-through musical to be heard pretty much in their entirety. One of the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of "Les Miserables" is that the majesty of Hugo's story, adapted here by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, is matched by the majesty of their score. Its melodies are as grandiose as the story, stirring, tuneful and totally capturing the emotion of the moment."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY says "Just try to remain unmoved when plucky urchin Eponine sings of her unrequited love in "On My Own," when unjustly persecuted fugitive Jean Valjean begs God to spare the life of his ward's young sweetheart in "Bring Him Home," as students lead the workers to insurrection in "Do You Hear the People Sing?" or when all the narrative and musical themes of the first act are rousingly woven together in the galvanic "One Day More." This is a show of inflamed passions -- romance, revolution and personal obsession. And even if it does stint on subtlety, it's hard to resist the sweeping saga's pull when its creatives have clearly brought such passionate conviction to the telling."
External links to full reviews from newspapers